A Deep, Deep Breath: The Practice of Sabbath

Sabbath_forest_masked_type_16-9Early one autumn morning I set out for a run in Vancouver. Although it is Saturday I have an extraordinary amount of work to push through today, the result of chronic over-commitment mingled dangerously with mismanaged expectations. But before I start slogging through it all, I just need some fresh air; need to try and clear the fog of stress so I can see a little better, think a little clearer.

I make my way through a small, forested park, past a glassy-smooth inlet with silent sailboats at anchor, and then along streets lined with bakeries and coffee shops just beginning to waft their weekend fragrances into the morning air. In my exultation I stop paying attention to my course, and after a few absentminded turns I find myself crossing an unfamiliar bridge and then running along one unfamiliar street after another.

Stopping to survey my surroundings I glance up and suddenly realize how dark and expansive the blanket of clouds has become along the North Shore mountains—an ominous indication that the weather is about to shift for the worse.

Within a few minutes it is raining so hard that I can hardly see half a block in front of me. The streets begin to fill with water, dirty creeks lofting random bits of garbage up on their shoulders while cigarette butts float like confetti down the submerged sidewalks.

The temperature drops dramatically, and I feel the warmth begin leaking out of my body. I run faster, hoping to generate a little more heat, hoping I can find my way home.

I run and I run and I run through the unrelenting storm.

. . .

If asked, could you define what an idol is?

Someone once asked me, and I’ve been replaying t his question over in my mind ever since. As far as I can make out, an idol is something—anything other than God—that we have elevated so much that it is believed to be the source and sustainer of our life and well-being. There are lots of idols in our world— money, power, fame, influence, airbags, national security, economic independence, medical science. All of these can be good things when they’re in their proper places. But they keep on wanting to crawl up on little altars and demand our allegiance and our sacrifice.

I’ll tell you about another idol, one that stands at the center of my Colorado hometown. It’s an impressive piece of bronze artwork, meticulously crafted and nearly ten feet tall. The artist titled the piece The Self Made Man, and it is one of the most significant pieces of commissioned artwork in that minimalist western town. It is a perfect encapsulation of the “American dream”: a strong and ardent man is frozen in midswing, raising his hammer high against the heavens, defying the gods, chiseling himself into existence out of a block of hard stone.

I’ve worshiped this idol for a long time. For most of my life I’ve believed that not only was it within my power but in fact it was my God-given responsibility to fashion myself into something strong and powerful and effective, using whatever hammers I could find to form myself into someone possessed with as much wealth and strength and power and influence as possible. “Think of the good you will do in the world then!” I’ve often told myself. “Think of the impact you’ll have!”

But here’s the thing: I’ve grown weary of all the blood and sweat and tears I’ve sacrificed before this idol, all the years I’ve struggled under the great weight of trying to fashion myself out of stone. It is strange, isn’t it? Most people in the long course of human history—some one hundred billion of us, great blizzard that we are—have struggled to have enough to eat, adequate shelter, sufficient clothing. Yet here I am, with more than enough clothes in my closet, more than enough food in the cupboards, a leak-proof roof over my head. And I am still tossing and turning about existential questions like whether or not my life has enough “meaning” in it, whether I’m doing enough for the good of the world, whether I am—as one prominent pastor put it—“wasting my life.”

I confide all this to a dear friend over a pint at a local pub. Bruce listens and nods as he sips his ale, agreeing. “What you’ve described is one of the dominant narratives in our culture,” Br uce muses. “One of the defining pictures of how we see ourselves. We think we’re our own creators, that we must make ourselves from raw material.”

“Yes, that’s it, isn’t it?” I say, realization sparking in my mind. “That’s exactly what that statue means: we think we’re our own makers. To be a self-made person means you must be your own creator. We must craft ourselves—ex nihilo: out of nothing. We have to keep on swinging the hammer, chiseling ourselves into existence. If we stop, we’ll just sink back down into nothingness.”

. . .

“Sabbath observance [is] one of our most honest and practical indicators of authentic religious faith. The extent and depth of our Sabbath commitment is the measure of how far we have progressed in our discipleship and fr iendship wit h God.” “Excuse me?” I wanted to shout at Wirzba. “I’m doing all kinds of stuff for God, thank you very much. Aren’t my actions and commitments in the world a far better indication of my ‘authentic religious faith’ than being lazy in God’s name?” The day after my beer with Bruce is fairly typical—typical in the sense that I’m spending it swinging my hammer, toiling and panting as I run through the storm, strained to the breaking point, tired and overworked.

One thing this Sacred Year is beginning to show me is how each of these spiritual practices can work like an antidote to some of the more poisonous aspects of our culture today. They are refreshing and life giving, whereas so often the habits and methods I’ve developed in my frenzied, stressed-out life are deadly poisons. The spiritual practices work like balm on wounds, healing even if painful at first.

Thus silence counteracts noise. And contemplation counteracts commodification.

Might Sabbath counteract the idol of the self-made man? No wonder I mocked Sabbath at first: idols always die hard.

. . .

SabbathThese spiritual practices can work like an antidote to some of the more poisonous aspects of our culture today. They are refreshing and life giving… like balm on wounds, healing even if painful at first.

These two images—slogging through a frigid storm and chiseling myself out of stone—capture the essence of how I feel most days. Most minutes, in fact. I’m either sprinting or feeling stuck, feeling stuck or sprinting. The good days are the running days, when I’m sprinting my way through my to-do lists and checking things off one by one. But if I’m not sprinting I’m probably in it up to here, just keeping my nose above the surface, convinced that at any moment a huge wave just might crash over me and send me choking, sinking down forever into nothingness.

Before beginning to keep Sabbath regularly, the idea of taking a whole day off in God’s name struck me as a quaint ritual, and one that was promoted either by people who are fundamentally negligent or else legalistic.

Sabbath seemed either like a direct affront to my usefulness, my autonomy, my upward mobility, the good work I was trying to do in the world or else yet another crushing weight that I might have to hoist up on my shoulders and start carrying around.

Maybe this is why I almost threw Norman Wirzba’s book, “Living the Sabbath,” across the room at his insistence that Marva Dawn defines the Sabbath as a day in which we cease doing anything that feels “obligatory” and instead focus on resting, embracing, and feasting. It is a day for delight. For sleeping in. For making love. For eating delicious meals and leaving the dishes until tomorrow. For taking long walks. For sitting in front of the wood fire and reading a novel. No chores. No obligations. No homework. No e-mail. No bills. Nothing at all that feels like work, nothing that seems to be oriented toward productivity or achievement. In short: no swinging of the hammer, whatever form it takes.

At first Sabbath is strange—not having to do anything. It feels like the first day of vacation, when you don’t know what to do with yourself, and you’re both exhausted and jittery all at the same time.

But after a few months of keeping Sabbath, it has become a dear friend. In the presence of Sabbath the very texture of time seems to be different.

The minutes become longer, fuller, more luxurious somehow. I stop mincing minutes, glancing out of addiction at my wristwatch or smartphone, wondering how I’m going to finish everything

I must. On Sabbath I experience the world in a different way. The light seems brighter, the smells stronger, the Wind more obviously whispering.

It is the expansiveness of time and the deep enjoyment possible therein that makes holiness palpable on Sabbath. For instead of Sabbath being a holy place, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel points out that Sabbath is instead holy time. This, Heschel insists, is directly in line with the biblical narrative, for the first thing God declared holy was time, not space.

There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.

The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place— a holy mountain or a holy spring—whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.

I wish you could have been here with us in holy time this past Sabbath.

It was one of the richest and most refreshing I’ve known in a long while. Days later even the memory of it is enough to fill me with warmth and hope as I am sitting here at my desk, working.

I felt that I didn’t have a moment to lose, that I simply couldn’t stop working, that I didn’t have time to rest.

That is usually the indicator that I must stop, that I must keep Sabbath, or risk losing myself completely in the storm, under the torrent and pace and demands of my life that are roaring out of control. I’ve learned to name that crushing urge to keep working for what it is: a temptation to kneel before the idol of the self-made man.

At last Sabbath has come. The sun has almost set. The house has been tidied, some food prepared, and wine poured into a specially designated Sabbath chalice hand-thrown for us by a dear friend. In keeping with the Jewish tradition, Danae and I officially begin the Sabbath by lighting two candles. Arising from the two Sabbath accounts in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy

5, one candle is for the word remember and the other is for the word observe.

Good food, good wine, candlelight, lamplight; these are the essential ingredients for establishing the atmosphere of Sabbath. For Sabbath, you see, is not just another thing on the to-do list, but an ethos, a particular way of being in the world.

At last Danae and I come to the table and sit down together. Once here, we slip off the manacles we must wear all week— those accursed things called wristwatches by which we mince and dissect the minutes into little chunks of maximized efficiency. Slipping them off literally feels like setting down a hundred- pound load of the harried life. We turn off our cell phones, too, and put away our wallets.

These may seem like simple, insignificant acts, but taken together they form a ritual: a ritual putting aside all these methods of productivity, consumerism, and influence. Thus we let go our hammers. All these things—wrist watches, smartphones, credit cards, cash—go into our “Sabbath box,” a simple mash-up I made not long ago out of scrap pieces of pallet wood. They won’t be allowed out until Sabbath is over.

And this is just the beginning—dear friends of ours are arriving from out of town. Friends of the rare type that we do not feel we need to “entertain,” but instead with whom we can truly be ourselves, friends with whom we’ve shared much life and sorrow and hope, friends who live on another continent and whom we’re able to see only once in a very great while.

They arrive late but we stay up talking well past midnight, drinking wine, listening to music, eating dessert, drinking deeply of the refreshing goodness of old and established friendship. Precisely what the Sabbath is meant to be about.

The next day begins after a long sleep-in with a delightful collaboration on a blueberry pancake feast for breakfast.

the rest of my hours, across the rest of my days, changing and altering the texture of ordinary time itself. The cutthroat sense of having to fashion myself out of stone has begun to loosen a little. A different image is underlying the work that I’m doing, that of seeking to be faithful to the calling of the Creator who is making and sustaining all things in existence. Of course I slip back into my frenzy now and then.

. . .

SabbathWith no wristwatches to truncate the meal, the conversation ranges and flows, spreading out luxuriously. One hour? Two? Who’s counting? We sit and we feast and we talk as long as feels right.

For there are no plans on Sabbath, nothing “required.” It is a day of rejoicing, of freedom, of flexibility. Of feasting and delighting and embracing.

After breakfast we embark on a leisurely walk along a wooded trail through a local city park, tracing our meandering way along a gently flowing river. As we saunter along together, t he gentle feeling of warm wonder begins to over take me, astonishment at the good gift of friendship, of the extraordinary beauty of the world that I did not make, of the body that I have been given which is able to see and touch and hear and taste and smell it all. All in a rush the crushing feeling that I am a self-made man evaporates, and I remember that I am merely a creature. A creature who has been created to live and move and have my being in the creation founded, established, and upheld by a Creator God.

“This is good,” I say to my friend after a moment of comfortable silence. “Very good indeed.”

“That it is,” he agrees, inhaling deeply the rich smell of the forest.

Luxurious time. Old friendships. Unearned abundance. This is what Sabbath is about. Rabbi Heschel speaks of the Sabbath as a “homeland.” The more I keep Sabbath, the more I yearn to be a native there.

. . .

Over the months of regular Sabbath keeping in the Sacred Year, an astonishing thing begins to happen: the ice-cold image of myself as a “self-made man” begins to thaw a little. Sabbath spreads out through my psyche, like spring coming into a wintry landscape, like water being soaked up into a dry sponge. And like the life-giving revitalization that it is, the echoes and reverberations of Sabbath-keeping began spreading out across.

Shortly after my friend Bruce and I parted ways from the pub, he sent me an e-mail with a subject line of “A Different Way.” There was an image attached, a photo he’d taken on a recent trip to Chartres Cathedral in France, of a centuries-old sculpture on one of the entryways. In the sculpture there is a human being—someone just like you, just like me— who is encased in stone. But instead of holding a hammer high against heaven, with a chisel pressed tightly against the nihilo that binds about the waste, in the sculpture there the human is being brought into existence by God.

This is the power of the antidote of Sabbath: to remind us that life is a gift, that the world is a gift, that we are most emphatically (and most joyously!) not our own gods, that we are not responsible for fashioning ourselves out of stone.

. . .

More than an hour after slogging through the Vancouver torrent, at last I see a familiar street. I turn down it and keep running, confident I’m headed in the right direction now, but daunted by the distance I must cover to return home.

I finally make it there, almost two and a half hours after I departed, more than an hour of which I’ve been sloshing my way through the downpour. I am soaked. My fingers look like bleached pr unes, and I’m walking on shoes that double as brimming buckets. My teeth are chattering, and I’m more than a little hypothermic, convulsing uncontrollably.

“Where have you been?” Danae asks, leaping up from the couch when I push open the front door.

“L—lost,” I stammer.

Danae embraces me for a moment, but then holds me at arm’s length. “You’re freezing!”

Too cold to speak, I just nod.

“Quick,” she says. “Go get in the shower. I’ll make you some tea.”

I nod again, strip off my sodden clothes, and climb toward the shower.

Though weary and heavy laden, at last, I am home.


Taken from “The Sacred Year” by Michael Yankoski Copyright © 2014
Michael George Yankoski III. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com. All rights reserved.

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